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Steel fencing is erected around the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., on Wednesday. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Steel fencing is erected around the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., on Wednesday. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Warning signs

Legacy of leaks plagued Elliot Lake mall before collapse Add to ...

In August, 2005, Bob Nazarian closed a $6.2-million deal to make his company the proprietor of the Algo Centre, the 25-year-old commercial heart of Elliot Lake.

It’s not clear if Mr. Nazarian, a Toronto-area businessman with a history of owning small-scale malls, knew it at the time, but townsfolk had long griped about the Algo’s problems. Chief among them were leaks of water from the rooftop parking lot into the building.

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Over the next seven years, Mr. Nazarian’s company would hire contractors to waterproof the roof, bring in engineers to examine the problem and pay thousands of dollars to settle a lawsuit from a tenant who said the leaks ruined her business. On one occasion, he even tried to acquire adjacent land to move parking off the building.

Then last Saturday, a chunk of that roof came crashing down.

Mr. Nazarian has declined all requests for comment – save to briefly say the Algo is the only commercial building he currently owns – but one friend said he was dedicated to the shopping centre and frustrated by its problems.

“I can tell you 100 per cent, he cared about the mall,” said Jocelyn Field, an Elliot Lake resident who got to know Mr. Nazarian after he bought the property, and remembers once seeing him there on a ladder with an electrician. “He did as much as he could to fix that roof.”

Mr. Nazarian hired three different contractors to do the job, Ms. Field said, and made other improvements to the facility, replacing the floors and doors. When the cave-in happened, she said, she called him and he scrambled to get to the scene.

It’s unknown what drew Mr. Nazarian to Elliot Lake. A resident of the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, where he owns an ample home and a Jaguar XF, his companies previously owned strip plazas in Kitchener and London. Ms. Field said Mr. Nazarian is originally from Iran.

The mall’s previous owner was a company connected to Elliot Lake Retirement Living, an organization that provides apartments and houses to seniors. Many of the community’s leaders sit on its board.

After acquiring the Algo, Mr. Nazarian spent years trying to fix it up. In legal documents, one contracting company said it performed more than $800,000 worth of work repairing the parking deck in the spring and summer of 2008. An engineering firm with experience fixing parking garages, meanwhile, said it prepared a report on retrofitting the mall early last year.

In May, 2011, Mr. Nazarian appeared before a meeting of the town’s economic development advisory committee to say he wanted to acquire city land adjacent to the mall to build a new parking lot. Some who were there said he told them the current set-up was damaging the roof and he seemed to want a solution urgently.

“As long as vehicles were being parked on the roof, they couldn't do a proper repair job,” committee member Donald Nichols said.

Both he and vice-chair Keith Moyer said Mr. Nazarian wanted land for free, but the city asked him to pay for it.

“It seems like no one wanted to step an inch out of the box,” Mr. Moyer said.

Mr. Nazarian was not the first to be fed up with the leaks. The water was a problem long before he arrived, said local residents, and any repair job seemed like little more than a quick fix.

“The first winter, it leaked. The second summer, it leaked like a sieve,” said Judy Pine, who has been going to the Algo since it opened in August, 1980. “We had squirrels running through Woolco because they had found a way to get in.”

Fern Dumas, who has lived on and off in Elliot Lake since 1955, said the mall has long been known for the near-constant presence of buckets on floors and countertops to catch falling water.

“There were pails everywhere,” he said.

On June 2, he said, his wife Beth saw a sign that the escalators were out of order due to water damage.

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